Fish was for Fridays. Everyone knew that. In school, they used to get fish fingers every Friday, still keeping to the fast. But now Conor Feely had fish every day. He slapped the battered lumps out onto the counter, then threw them into the wire chip basket before dunking them into the bubbling oil. His fat pink hands were criss-crossed with scars from the sizzling baskets. And Conor smelt of fish every day. In the beginning, he’d tried to wash it off. He’d get in from work and have a shower—his mother roaring at him through the bathroom door to be quick about it and not to waste electricity on washing off the muck that’d only get onto him again tomorrow. But now he didn’t bother. He’d get in, step into a pair of jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, then sit in front of the telly eating his fish and chips, his mother smoking a fag and watching him. He could feel his arse grow. It was broadening and tightening the material of his overalls week by week. He’d already gone up two sizes in six months. His once-baggy jogging pants clung to him. And the oil had got into his pores—clogging them up so crop after crop of spots would swell, ripen and burst on his face. Sometimes Conor would squeeze them in front of the dusty mirror in his room. The pus reminded him of the raw batter in work.
‘Fish’s good for the head. For the brain,’ his ma would say, tapping the side of her head with a painted fingernail. Then she’d nip in to steal a chip from his plate.
‘Fuck off and get your own,’ Conor would say, crumpling the bag to protect the food. When his da had been there, they’d only had takeaway on a Friday. The ma would cook the rest of the time. Shite mostly. She wasn’t great at cooking. Wasn’t great at much. But Fridays were different. They’d get one Large Fish Supper between the three of them. Him and his da scrabbing to get at the last of the chips, the ma pretending she wasn’t hungry, picking at the leftover batter. Conor remembered the way his da used to save her the last chip, hiding it in the wrappers. Remembered the way they used to carry on. He’d always been jealous of that last chip.
Sometimes Conor couldn’t stand the hungry look on her. He knew she lay about the house all day in the same T- shirt and leggings, smoking fags. He knew she wasn’t eating right. It was one of the things she did to his da, not eat right, then have him worrying, fetching her Complan and vitamins. But Conor wasn’t going to be the same ould eejit as his da. When she was acting the maggot, he just took his food to his bedroom, where he’d eat every last morsel alone. Then he’d lie back, rubbing his swollen belly.
Every afternoon, when Conor woke, his room would be thick with the smell of stale fish and chips. Conor never opened the window anymore. He never even opened the curtains. He knew his mother occasionally changed the sheets, usually when the smell overpowered the landing. Then she’d come barging into the room with clean linen, roaring about the dirty hallion she had for a son. Lazy useless gulpin that she’d be better off without. He’d fire some money at her and head into the shower, leaving her guldering at him from outside the door. Standing under the scalding hot water, he’d watch the bathroom window steam up, then trickle down into streams.
Conor liked money. The first thing he’d bought with his wages was a lock. Then he’d borrowed the Dirty Murphy’s drill and whacked it into the bedroom door. Conor loved the drill. The sound of it. The way everything went in straight and clean. His ma had given out to him for the dust and dirt, wondering what she’d done to her son that he had to lock a door against her. She never locked the front door at night. Conor knew she was still hoping his da would come back.
The second thing Conor bought was Dinny Teague’s collection of porn magazines. Dinny had been boasting about them in the takeaway one night. All-American imports—none of the soft shite you’d get over here. Dinny’d got them during his time in Boston. It had taken one whole suitcase to fly them all home. Then Dinny had come in one night after the bookies, needing a few quid to see him through to the dole. And so Conor got himself his first porn collection. Now he was saving for a TV and game box. He had enough for the TV already, but he wanted the whole package at once. Wanted to bring the big boxes in under the nose of his mother and to lock himself in the room and put it all together, leaving her outside wondering what badness was he at now, what shite was he wasting his money on and her without tuppence to rub together.
Fish and chips. The same every night. Ould Mr Carr often asked Conor would he not try something else. A nice battered sausage maybe. Or a Daddy Burger. Like the rest of the town, Conor often wondered why Mr Carr called his cheap-shite grease burgers Daddy Burgers. But he never asked.
‘And always a double tub of mayonnaise. Every night the cub has the same eatings,’ Mr Carr would tell his wife, who couldn’t care less whether Conor Feely lived or died.
‘He’ll grow to be a wile size if he doesn’t watch himself.’
Conor first discovered mayonnaise in Mr Carr’s takeaway. He couldn’t understand it in the beginning—couldn’t see why people ordered such minging-looking shite to put on their food. In they’d come and at the tail end of their order they’d put in for a garlic or plain mayo. Conor would write it all down and pin the order to the board. The Daly brothers were mad keen on it. Every Friday night it would be the same story. Four Daddy Burgers, four large chips, a two-litre bottle of coke and a double tub of garlic mayo. And every Friday night the same drunken litany from the slack mouths of the four Daly brothers, before they’d stagger out home.
The teachers had told them everyone would change when they left school. That they’d all somehow grow up, be nicer, become friends. But the Daly brothers just got bigger and harder from their labouring. Joined the IRA and started fights they knew they’d always win. They’d money to spend and girls hanging off them. And they’d bigger mouths for dealing dirt to others. But Conor was usually safe now. Behind the counter, serving up their greasy crap, watching them snog their girls, short- change him or occasionally beat the shite out of some lone Protestant. All they usually did now was roar at him, asking where the fuck his da was?
His da had been a solid man. The neighbours all fond of him. Everyone knew he was a sound fella—the sort of man you could call on at three in the morning when your car had broken down on the motorway outside Belfast and you needed lifting. No odds that his da had to be back in the town for seven to get the factory bus. No. Iggy Feely would be up the road and back, then in on time for his twelve-hour shift in the factory.
Mr Carr knew he could rely on Conor—he wasn’t quite his father’s son, but still, only in the job six months and he was able to trust him with the keys of the place and locking up. Conor wasn’t the fastest worker—he had his own pace—but by God he was a solid worker. He was no chef. But the chips never burned, the oil never caught fire and they never ran low in stock when he was in the chipper. And his garlic mayonnaise portions were the most generous in town. His da had always told him that if he’d a job to do, he should do it right, no matter how shite it was. Conor sometimes wondered what his da would make of his new job.
‘Never end up in the factory. Never. You don’t want to throw your life away. You don’t want to get stuck.’
Stuck. Trapped. The fear had been on Conor all his life.
The teachers at school had taught his da. He’d been one of the brightest they’d had. Course in those days there were no opportunities for Catholics, no matter how bright, unless they took the boat to England or the plane to America. So Iggy Feely had ended up in factory work. He rose up from entry-level to become one of the factory engineers. Ended up in a well-enough paid job, with his own wee house and car. And then he went and married one of the lazy crazy Keenans. Had to marry one of them, the word went, the shotgun at the chapel door. The teachers told him he had his da’s brains, but it was a pity he wouldn’t use them. So they spent twelve long years trying to beat the lazy Keenan streak out of him. When the teachers weren’t clouting him, the Daly brothers were. From primary school to secondary school, on sports days, school outings, parish discos and cross-community trips, the Daly brothers tripped, kicked and punched Conor Feely into submission. After they left school, Conor didn’t go out much, couldn’t face the awful possibility of the proper hiding they’d promised. No. Home to bed with fish and chips and a double tub of mayonnaise.
When he got home that night, his mother was sitting in the living room with the parish priest. One look at her wet face nearly stopped his heart. His da. There had to be news. Bad news. But the hard face on the priest put the notion out of him. He sat there patting the ma’s hand.
‘Good evening, Conor.’
There was an awkward silence. Conor was damned if he’d let the pair of them intimidate him.
‘Bit late for you, is it not, with your early Mass?’
‘As parish priest, I’m on call all hours of the day and night.’
‘Rather you than me, eh Father?’
Conor walked out of the door and up to his bedroom. He changed, then padded back downstairs to the kitchen to where his bulging packet of fish and chips sat steaming. He could hear the ma gurning in the room next door, filling the priest with stories of her sorrows. Conor dumped the packet onto a plate. Then the living-room door opened and Father McAteer came out.
‘A word, Conor, if I may.’
Later that night, Conor sat in his room staring at the ceiling, his full belly bulging over the waistband of his boxers. Empty fish and chip papers lay scattered by his bed, the unopened double tub of mayonnaise on the plate. He could hear his ma snoring. She never used to snore. She only started after his da left, after she started onto the tranquillisers and shite. Conor couldn’t sleep when she snored and he knew there was a long empty night ahead of him. He reached down and picked up the tub of mayonnaise. He opened it, then carefully lifted out a spoonful of mayonnaise. Then picked up one of Dinny Teague’s American magazines and flicked to a feature on Slutty Cheerleaders. After he wanked into the tub, he stirred the mixture with his finger and squeezed the lid shut. He wiped his finger on the bedsheets and lay back, ready for the next evening and for the Daly brothers’ special double tub of mayonnaise. Conor was ready for every day of the next twenty years.